Can AOC's political action committee push a new wave of progressives into office?
On Friday, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed seven progressive women candidates through her newly formed political action committee, Courage to Change. The endorsed candidates aren’t just up against Republicans, but also battling establishment Democrats for a spot in Washington. The move signals a growing body in the Democratic Party's left flank that’s young, diverse, and energized — and willing to take on the status quo, even from within. After all, that's what Ocasio-Cortez herself did in 2018, when she ousted Democratic Caucus Chair and 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley.
During Ocasio-Cortez’s first term in Congress, she’s become one of the most recognizable young faces in politics today and a leader of leftward tilt for the Democratic Party. She’s lent her clout to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, endorsing him for president and campaigning for him in early states, discussing in particular his support of the Green New Deal, her signature legislation. (Ocasio-Cortez's worked as a volunteer organizer for Sanders's campaign in 2016.)
“One of our primary goals is to reward political courage in Congress and also to help elect a progressive majority in the House of Representatives,” Ocasio-Cortez told The New York Times. In other words, she’s not just concerned with electing Democrats, but Democrats who aren’t afraid to push the envelope; she doesn’t just want to support progressive candidates, but progressive candidates who are going to win.
But running for Congress can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the financial barrier can discourage otherwise viable candidates from running. That's why the congresswoman has thrown the weight of her new PAC's support behind a few upstart candidates: Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, Teresa Leger Fernandez, Samelys López, Georgette Gómez, Kara Eastman, Marie Newman, and Jessica Cisneros. Ramirez, a labor and voting rights activist, is running against Democrat M.J. Hegar in Texas for the right to challenge incumbent Repulican Sen. John Cornyn. Hegar, who was previously the Democratic nominee in a race for a Texas House seat, is backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Marie Newman, meanwhile, is running a primary campaign in Illinois's 3rd District against Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. In Texas’s 28th District, 26-year-old human rights lawyer Jessica Cisneros is going up against Rep. Henry Cuellar.
What Ocasio-Cortez's 2018 win showed was that it's possible to break into Washington without the support of funding arms like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee — but you still need grassroots support, which is what she’s hoping to help make happen for these seven candidates. This belief in progressive candidacy and political courage also aligns with the Democratic left’s belief that voters shouldn’t have to accept candidates who may hold values that contradict Democratic ideals; Lipinski is an anti-abortion Democrat and Cuellar has an A rating from the National Rifle Association.
At a time when the Democratic Party is struggling to define its identity — whether it will seek to adopt a new progressive platform that maximizes the federal government's efforts on things like climate change and health care, or whether it will play a more cautious game focused intensely on ousting President Trump — investments like Ocasio-Cortez's show momentum building from the party's left side.